Risk Assessment in the Workplace: a priority for psychological as well as physical wellbeing

Risk Assessment in the Workplace: a priority for psychological as well as physical wellbeing


Posted by Amanda Furness

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Often the term ‘risk assessment’ in the workplace conjures up an image of potential physical harm, as opposed to psychological harm.  Managers only realise that they should have paid more attention to psychological risk following the outcome of a grievance or industrial tribunal.

Christine Clark, Mental Health Awareness Trainer, has reported:

Sadly, even in some of the best regulated organisations the potential to properly manage the harm from psychological risk is not even being considered.  As psychological ill health and associated physical health conditions are by far the major reason for workplace absenteeism & presenteeism, this is a missed opportunity in many workplace settings.

A comprehensive approach looking at a preventative psychological resilience & wellbeing model, but anticipating ill health and crisis, is the most effective approach.

Here we would like to outline some useful frameworks to act as a reminder of the importance of psychological risk assessments in the workplace to protect the mental wellbeing of your employees.

Assessing Risk

The first time I was aware of the HSE management standards for stress was when an employee was taking action for psychological ill health against the organisation.”
Quote by a manager attending a Mental Health First Aid 2-day course

Managers are keen to learn about managing mental health conditions and how to support their staff, but assessing the risk to staff at an early stage could help prevent or eliminate psychological harm.  Assessing risk in your organisation comprises of thinking about what might cause harm to people and results in measures being put in place to prevent harm.  Examples of risks which can cause psychological harm could be:

  • High workload/demands
  • Lack of control/ability to make decisions
  • No flexibility in working hours/shift patterns
  • Blame culture
  • Poor communication
  • Limited training
  • Ineffective leadership and support

Psychological risk assessments & controls

An understanding of the HSE Management Standards along with regular assessment of management behaviour are the key foundations to protecting the wellbeing of employees.

Here is a reminder of the Management Standards which cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor mental health.

• Demands – issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
• Control – how much say the person has in the way they work
• Support – the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
• Relationships – promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
• Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting  roles
• Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation

Using the In Equilibrium ‘CUSP’™ Framework to Manage Mental Health Conditions at Work

This is a very simple framework designed by In Equilibrium.  It enables managers to take both a proactive and reactive approach to reducing the risk of workplace stress.  However, it is also applicable for managers who need to reduce the risk for individuals who are showing signs of mental ill health.

Summary of ‘CUSP’™
If you can …

  • Enable increased perception of Control
  • Reduce Uncertainty, and the associated anxiety and insecurity
  • Provide Support, especially in highly pressurised or stressful situations
  • Tackle sources of Pressure (stressors) in the work area

… then you will increase well-being at work and minimise the risk of stress-related mental health illness.

Control Enablers (C) 

1. Delegate, and encourage the person to review their workload
2. Enable control over the physical environment, in other words a larger space and away from noise
3. Offer as much flexibility as you can over working arrangements
4. Involve the person in decision making, especially those that affect them, however keep conversations clear and concise
5. Consult and involve the person on decisions about workload
6. Avoid negative behaviours (e.g. bullying) as they take away control

Uncertainty Reducers (U)

1. Communicate clearly, frequently and effectively
2. Be open, approachable and welcoming
3. Avoid being secretive as this can tie into the person’s negative beliefs
4. Be clear about roles, tasks and priorities
5. Be careful about behaviours that may be ambiguous
6. Give as much clear information as possible
7. Use emails sparingly and with great care
8. Give the person regular and constructive feedback
9. Try not to give mixed messages
10. Be aware of the uncertainties and insecurities that mental illness can cause and take action to minimise these

Support providers (S) 

1. Encourage staff to come to you if they need to talk anything through
2. Meet regularly on a one-to-one basis
3. Listen without interrupting
4. Give practical support and advice where appropriate
5. Avoid blame
6. Provide opportunities for personal development
7. Make sure staff know about all available support structures
8. Address any bullying/conflict issues swiftly and fairly, as per agreed policies and procedures

Pressure reducers and regulators (P) 

1. Set achievable objectives, especially during an episode
2. Set realistic timescales
3. Make priorities clear
4. Plan ahead
5. Avoid giving conflicting tasks or roles
6. Match tasks to skills during an episode

Action Planning

Through greater awareness of psychological risk, organisations will aim to put measures in place to protect the mental, as well as physical, wellbeing of their employees.  The following comment from a delegate who works in a Health & Safety role clearly demonstrates this approach:

Question – “What will you do differently as a result of attending the ‘Mental Health Awareness Training for Managers’ 1-day course?”

Response – “Give mental health as high a priority as the safety and physical health side my role requires.”

To find out more about how you can take a proactive approach to protect the wellbeing of your employees through in-house training, please visit our Mental Health Awareness Training Course page, complete our online contact form or give us a call on 0131 476 5027.

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